“Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from the Levites. Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects: let Aaron and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage. But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die” (Num 4:18-20.)
This week’s Torah portion once again discusses the theme of death as a result of coming into too close (or inappropriate) contact with God. The previous chapter from the Book of Numbers (Num 3:3-4) describes the death of the two sons of Aharon, Nadab and Abihu, who died because they brought an unholy fire to the Eternal. A simple understanding of these verses (pshat) suggests that we are dealing with a mysterious or even magical occurrence. However, such an interpretation is rather difficult to accept for a religious mind who at the same time wishes to be enlightened – also by means of its religion. The above mentioned verses are problematic, especially when it comes to mysticism. In fact, Judaism offers us many different theological models, including the possibility to perceive God as mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a mystery which simultaneously attracts and evokes dread); however, should being close to God, from which we derive so many blessings, be actually traumatic and evoke fears of annihilation?
In my view it shouldn’t, and this isn’t a good model of religiousness. On the contrary, being close to God should let us heal from our traumas and anxieties. This being said, how are we to understand the above mentioned verses today? Before we answer this question, let us search for suggestions within the Torah itself:
“He said, ‘Oh, let me behold Your Presence!’ […] He said, ‘you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live’” (Ex 33:18, 20.)
Here we find a very similar, yet slightly different idea, which in this place is being expressed in a more abstract way. A contemporary Rabbi, Sarah Bassin, in one of her drashot discusses the matter of our close relationship with God and in relation to the above mentioned verses from the Book of Exodus she asks:
“How could it be that after all Moses has experienced of God, he still feels as though he does not understand the Divine? Moses’ strange crisis of faith taps into a larger, more universal truth for all of us.”
Actually the answer to the question, “how could it be possible?” is not that difficult after all. It was provided by the 20th century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who said: The limits of my language are the limits of my world. In other words – the limits of language are the limits of human cognition. Later a variation of this concept was proposed by a linguistically oriented branch of philosophy, which claimed that people are able to describe and understand new experiences only in terms of their previous experiences. Therefore, even if Moses experienced Divinity in an unusual and unique way for a man, he lacked the appropriate type of language and the conceptual framework to express that experience or to pass it on to others. God’s reply to Moses had tamed his “desire for Divinity”, thus saving him from dying.
The same factor, i.e. the limits of knowledge, but at a different – not so much linguistic as cultural level contributed to the building of the golden calf. The only way the Israelites were able to understand the new Divinity which had been just revealed to them was within the framework of their previous experiences. And if such a mode of cognition is an inevitable, inherent feature of how humans learn about their world, then in fact God did not have a choice but to forgive the Israelites for their actions, since even if He had destroyed them in His anger, sooner or later the next people chosen by Him would have acted in the same way, even if they originated “from the womb of Moses”.
However, even though God did not kill off the Israelites, the “golden calf incident” has affected the entire Jewish history. What kind of conclusions can we derive from these insights? Here are my suggestions: grasping the essence of Divinity entails attempting to go beyond the limits of our understanding and experience, and hence of our own world – and as such it is not possible without crossing over “to the other side”, which means, in short, death. In addition, if our “desire for Divinity” leads to excessive zealotry and impatience as we serve God, it will result in mistakes, especially if such feelings are not accompanied by appropriate preparation and understanding. Such errors can have catastrophic consequences for us if in our longing to be close to God we lose track of our own intellect and common sense.
Therefore, it is always good to have more experienced guides when it comes to such matters.
Have a joyous Shavuot!
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka